Global Affairs

No good case for second referendum on Brexit

Britain is engaged in a 'civil war' on Brexit, but a second vote won't settle the issue.

Billionaire American fund manager George Soros, one of the world's most successful investors, is known as the "Man who broke the Bank of England"; in one single day in September 1992, he bet that the British pound would not remain part of the European financial arrangement that ultimately gave birth to the euro single currency, and pocketed a cool US$1 billion by that evening, then worth around S$1.6 billion.

So there was some irony when Mr Soros announced recently that he was donating half a million of those dollars to a campaign to persuade the people of Britain to hold a referendum in order to go back over their decision to leave the European Union; the man who made huge amounts of money by guessing that the British wouldn't wish to be part of a European project is now giving some of that money back to achieve precisely the opposite result.

Nor is he alone in the quest to reverse Brexit, as the process of Britain's divorce from the EU is universally known. A large chunk of Britain's political elite is now openly advocating a second referendum, to reverse the results of the 2016 ballot which decided that Britain should leave the union.

Still, the chances of stopping Brexit and keeping Britain in the EU remain very slim, because such a ballot can take place only after, and not before Britons reach a broader national consensus about what place they wish to have in the world. This time, Mr Soros is likely to lose his bet.

PROS AND CONS

Arguments in favour of holding a second referendum seem compelling. The first referendum, held on June 23, 2016, hardly produced a conclusive outcome. Only 51.8 per cent of the votes went for Brexit, just 17.4 million out of a total electorate of 46.5 million decided Britain's history.

Furthermore, the electoral campaign was a travesty of democracy, with barefaced lies being peddled, such as the claim that Turkey was only months away from being admitted to the EU, disgorging its many millions of largely Muslim citizens upon Britain's shores.

But the most serious argument for a second referendum is that we now have an idea of the sheer enormity of the enterprise.

Over 700 trade treaties will need to be renegotiated with nations around the world; laws extending over a quarter of a million printed pages will also have to be amended. Thousands of civil servants labour day and night negotiating Brexit, and nothing has yet been decided.

Meanwhile, British Cabinet ministers themselves have no clue what they want, constantly mixing legal concepts such as the single market with free trade areas, or inventing new concepts that have no legal meaning, such as "soft" or "hard" border controls.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

British officials are now engaged in the ridiculous exercise of telling countries around the world that, for a "transition period", they should continue treating Britain as though it's still a member of the EU, although it won't be an EU member.

The people of Britain - those advocating a second referendum argue - should be able to deliver their verdict on this mess.

Yet, strangely, the practical arguments against a second referendum are even more compelling.

They start with the simple observation that the Brexit referendum took place only because the ruling Conservative Party faced political oblivion over the question of Europe and Mr David Cameron, the country's prime minister at that time, believed that a vote on Europe - which he foolishly assumed would go overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU - would settle the matter "for a generation".

Whichever way one looks at this, chances are high that the current British divorce from Europe will continue, with no second referendum. And chances are equally high that Britain will spend the next 10 years trying to extricate itself from Europe, the following 10 years regretting what it has done, and the decade thereafter negotiating its readmission to the European Union.

The unexpected outcome in the referendum cost Mr Cameron his job, but saved the Conservatives from oblivion, at least for the moment. However, if Prime Minister Theresa May were to even suggest another referendum now, her party will simply blow up. A second referendum can, therefore, take place only as part of a meltdown of the Conservatives, the party that has dominated British politics for two centuries.

Besides, no referendum can be authorised without an explicit vote of Parliament, where the Conservatives don't have an overall majority, so the support of Labour, the main opposition, would be required. But the reality is that Mr Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's far-left leader, is quite content with Brexit and sees no particular reason to reverse the process, especially since many of those who voted to take Britain out of the EU happen to come from Labour's core electoral constituency.

BREXIT CIVIL WAR

Britain's political elite have convinced themselves that the EU question is merely a dispute about where power should reside and who should exercise regulatory authority. But it is nothing of the kind; it is, in effect, a civil war between the haves and have-nots in Britain, a rebellion of those who never felt included, saw no immediate prospect of inclusion, and viewed immigration and globalisation as merely forces that marginalised them even further.

That is why the most brazen of lies about Europe were believed during the last referendum, and why a second referendum may not succeed in dispelling myths either: because the debate is not so much about facts and reasons, but more about sentiments and fears.

In this civil war now gripping Britain, the political flanks of the Conservatives' extreme right and Labour's extreme left are allies, not enemies; they both view Europe as a conspiratorial plot. And as long as this battle is either won or forgotten, it is difficult to see how a second referendum can take place.

Nor is it that obvious that, even if a second referendum was held, its result would be any different. Opinion polls indicate that the "remainers" may now have the upper hand, but pollsters predicted a similar result in 2016, and they were wrong.

Young people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU, now claim that they would turn out to vote if given a second chance. But the youth always claim that before elections, only to end up expressing their opinions on ballot day by tweeting from their bedrooms.

Furthermore, in the 2016 referendum, the people of Britain were warned that, should they vote to leave the EU, their economy would immediately collapse. Yet nothing of the kind happened. The British economy grew, albeit more slowly than those of other European countries. Last year, Britain's exports increased by over 11 per cent, and manufacturing marked 30 years of uninterrupted growth.

Economists warn that these are flukes and that the future still looks grim. Perhaps, but the same economists also warned two decades ago that if Britain did not accept the euro currency, the City of London would be "obliterated" as a financial centre, yet London went on to flourish as never before.

 

The British economy will have to suffer real pain before enough people will be persuaded to change their minds. And, by the time that happens, Brexit would already be a reality.

Besides, even the most optimistic of opinion polls indicates that a second referendum held now would also be decided by a wafer-thin majority. So, would a 51 per cent result in favour of staying in the EU conclusively overturn the current 51 per cent majority in favour of leaving?

A FINAL VOTE?

The argument that the people of Britain should be given the right to vote not now, but on the final Brexit deal that may be reached next year sounds slightly more hopeful.

But even that idea raises major difficulties. If EU negotiators know in advance that voters in Britain will be asked to pass their judgment, would it not be in the EU's interest to make the deal as difficult as possible?

And what will happen if the deal is rejected? Would Britain remain in the EU, or would it begin to negotiate again? If it's the former, this would bring into disrepute both Britain and the EU, which would have wasted a monumental amount of time only to keep matters as they are. But if the result of a rejection of a deal in a referendum is merely the resumption of the Brexit negotiations, then Britain would gain an effective right to blackmail Europe forever.

So, whichever way one looks at this, chances are high that the current British divorce from Europe will continue, with no second referendum. And chances are equally high that Britain will spend the next 10 years trying to extricate itself from Europe, the following 10 years regretting what it has done, and the decade thereafter negotiating its readmission to the EU.

Either way, there will be plenty of political campaigns that billionaire investors may be asked to bankroll.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2018, with the headline 'No good case for second referendum on Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe